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Sarah Crompton's preview of LIFT 2022: 'Unlike anything on offer elsewhere'

The international theatre festival kicks off today

Sun & Sea

I saw a play in Dutch at the weekend. Which is quite impressive, since I don't actually speak a word of Dutch. But I sat there quiet and engrossed as A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction unfolded in front of me. You don't need language to understand a brilliant staging, exceptional acting – or indeed the all-encompassing issue of climate change. You just need an open mind and a certain amount of patience.

This production, at the Holland Festival, is the latest incarnation of an idea by Katie Mitchell as part of the Sustainable Theatre Project which seeks to eliminate travel within a trans-national tour. Only her concept and the script tours; in each country Miranda Rose Hall's eco-feminist monologue visits, local creatives will create their own vision of the piece. The staging has to be ecologically responsible; in Amsterdam, the production generated its own electricity.

It's a fascinating idea, and though it will probably come to the UK, and I will probably see it here, I'm glad that I first encountered it in a different country where it was more difficult and unsettling for me. I know I will always remember it. That's the thing about festivals – they push you beyond your comfort zone, and make you try experiences you might never encounter otherwise. Sometimes you regret your choices; more often than not, you're shaken, stirred and excited by what you see.

LIFT 2022, London's biennal international festival of theatre, which begins today (and runs until 10 July) offers plenty of opportunities for exactly that kind of mind-stretching stimulation. It's the first organised by artistic director Kris Nelson and executive director Stella Kanu after their 2020 plans were cancelled because of Covid and it is full of challenging ideas about what theatre can and should be doing.

Its undoubted high spot is Sun and Sea, which was the Lithuanian entry for the 2019 Venice Biennale, winning the top prize, and becoming the absolute talking point of the world's most prestigious art show. It's an opera about climate change, set on an artificial beach built indoors. In this case, in the Albany in Deptford. But even that description doesn't begin to give a sense of its sheer creative vitality, its dangerous charm, as languid sunbathing and swimming encompasses something infinitely more unsettling.

The audience watches from above which just adds another layer of oddity to a show created by an all-female creative team, composer Lina Lapelytė, librettist Vaiva Grainytė and director Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė.

Radio Ghost

Another collision of unlikely location and intriguing premise is Zu-UK's Radio Ghost, an interactive ghost hunt through three London shopping centres – Brent Cross, the Mall, Wood Green and Exchange Ilford. It's an audio-driven, app-based adventure, that runs at various times throughout the day and sends the audience out amongst regular shoppers.

Other shows deal with other important issues of the day. The Making of Pinocchio at Battersea Arts Centre combines an autobiography of gender transition with the age-old story of a puppet made of wood who wants to be a real boy; meanwhile, the Nest Collective from Kenya, use cinema, visual art and electronic music to celebrate black activists in The Feminine and the Foreign at Shipwright, Deptford.

The festival is pushing traditional boundaries at exactly the time when they need to be challenged. It's also unlike anything on offer elsewhere – and like all the best festivals, a chance to stretch the mind. It feels like a breath of air – or perhaps a sea breeze.

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